Technology & body integrations that are happening, and helping, now
In the quintessentially nineties film Bicentennial Man, Robin Williams plays a humanoid robot that gradually replaces his mechanical body to become increasingly human like. The irony is, of course, as today’s robots become more like us, we are arguably becoming more like them. Through advanced robotics, bioprinting, implants and wearables, the cyborgs of science fiction are already walking among us today. Here are 10 ways that technology has and will continue to replace our bodies.
1. 3D printed bones
This August, doctors at Shanghai Changzheng Hospital successfully carried out a complex vertebra replacement using 3D printed bones. 28 year old Xiao Wen had developed bone cancer in her neck, but an appropriate replacement implant was unavailable. Instead, doctors decided to create a 3D printed replica of the bone using titanium alloy.
2. Chip implants
At the beginning of the month, 41 of tech company Three Square Market’s 85 employees volunteered to be microchipped. The chips were implanted into the volunteers’ hands, and will enabled them to open doors, log onto computers and buy snacks simply by waving. This is the next logical step from the workplace wearables that many other organisations now use. Outside of the working environment, RFID chips are used to unlock houses and other personal devices.
3. Bioprinted organs
Medical 3D printing, also known as bioprinting, has led to the creation of artificial organs including skin. In the UK, the waiting time for a replacement organ can be over two and a half years. By making functional 3D printed organs, developers could solve this issue. A team at Oxford University recently revealed a droplet based 3D printing technique that enables the growth of living structures from lab grown cells. This could be used to repair or replace damaged human organs, reduce the need for animal testing and improve the effectiveness of drugs.
4. Brain to computer interfaces
Earlier this year, Elon Musk’s medical research company Neuralink announced the development of neural lace technology. The product is essentially a brain implant which connects the mind to a computer via electrodes, letting humans upload and download content. It’s almost impossible to imagine the possibilities of connecting our brains to computers. Nonetheless, other organisations are also working on the technology, including Facebook, the University of California and startup Kernel.
5. Replica nose
In the Netherlands, The eNose Company has developed a replica human nose that can successfully carry out ‘artificial olfaction’ – in other words, smelling without a real biological nose. Applications include screening diseases through body odour analysis and equipping law enforcement teams with the nasal sensitivity of sniffer dogs.
6. Enhanced immune systems
Biotechnology company United Therapeutics Corporation is biochemically adjusting the body’s immune system to destroy cancerous cells. In 2015, the US Food and Drug Administration approved their use of innovative drugs to reprogram children’s immune systems to fight off cancer. After a three year trial, tumours were removed in 63 per cent of patients.
7. Bionic eyes
Through mobile app Be My Eyes, a live video connection is set up between blind or visually impaired users, and sighted volunteers. The blind or visually impaired user can point their phone camera at certain situations or objects, which the sighted volunteer will then explain. This incredibly simple application of technology is helping bring sight to those who would otherwise be left in the dark. Ocumentics Technology Corporation is another company with a similar aim – to clear vision without the need for glasses or contact lenses. In future, as Augmented and Virtual Reality see wider adoption, similar solutions may be developed using these mediums.
8. Cochlear implants
Electronic medical devices also known as cochlear implants have helped deaf and partially deaf people to hear for years. Although it’s hardly cutting edge technology, it’s incredibly important to quality of life. Today, new features are being developed to enhance hearing further. New York City startup Waverly Labs is working to bring real time translation to wearable technology, breaking down language barriers between different nationalities.
Robotic exoskeletons are wearable machines that fit around the user’s body. They have been used by the military to improve limb performance, enabling the wearer to pick up heavy objects effortlessly. Outside of the military, exoskeletons have found a noble application in healthcare. ReWalk Robotics, for example, designs exoskeletons for those suffering from paraplegia or spinal cord injuries in their lower bodies, giving them the ability to walk again.
10. Designer babies
One of the most controversial applications of technology to human bodies is designer babies. Whilst some view embryo editing as dangerous and ethically abhorrent, new gene editing techniques like CRISPR could be used to detect and prevent inherited diseases in foetuses. There’s still a lot of debate to be had before the technique can be applied to embryos which develop into babies.
From fake noses to computer connected brains, there is huge potential for our bodies to take on more and more technology. For many people, the thought of adding technology to their bodies in any way is unnerving, especially if this involves implants. However, the above case studies show that there is a distinct market for body tech, and not necessarily just within healthcare. So, if you still think cyborgs are a sci fi or fantasy, think again.